Done properly, the work of a dialect coach is everywhere and nowhere at once. Done wrong, a so-called dialect disaster will preoccupy viewers to distraction. This awards season, accents have become the topic du jour on the press circuit. Exhibit A: director Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. The $75 million biographical drama features a mishmash of Italian accents, including Jared Leto saying, “He’s-ah no-ah spring chicken-ah!” while Jeremy Irons elocutes in quasi-English Chiantishire diction. Lady Gaga — who worked with a personal dialect coach for six months prior to production — speaks in an accent another coach on the film later derided as sounding “more Russian.” In Being the Ricardos, Javier Bardem “can’t mimic a Cuban accent to save his life,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Laura Bradley. At a town hall at the University of Puerto Rico, West Side Story director Steven Spielberg discussed his apprehension about getting the accents right and talked about working with multiple coaches to “help Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York too long to remember where they came from.” The people doing the coaching say the actors don’t make it easy. “Anything you could attribute to a 3-year-old boy you could attribute to an actor trying to avoid learning a language, accent, or dialect,” says Mary McDonald-Lewis, who coaxed Robert Pattinson to drop his native Briticisms for Twilight. We spoke to four veteran coaches, who laid out the path to accent perfection in four simple steps.
Don’t worry about offending anyone when you’re practicing.
Coach: Samara Bay
Students: Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman 1984), Rachel McAdams (Eurovision Song Contest), Penélope Cruz (The Assassination of Gianni Versace)
I don’t like to use the term offensive when it comes to accents. We’re trying to make something real and that, yes, is respectful and honors the culture it is rooted in. But this is a safe space where you get to play. I often say, “Let’s do the big, loud, bad version to start.” It’s rarely big or loud or bad, but it gives them the freedom to not jump away and think, Oh no, I’m going to offend somebody. Let’s find out what someone else’s life might sound like in your mouth without the fear that we’re going to mess up. No one is listening. It’s just us. Then we refine. If we’re listening to an audio clip and then pop back over and try it, we’ll say, “How does that fit? Does it make your spine taller? Which sounds are essential to this accent?” Then we go back to the source material and make sure we’re respecting it as we get more and more nuanced.